White Night Riots: Personal History Chapter Two
Around 9 p.m. on May 21, 1979 as I walked out of the grand second floor chambers with the San Francisco Supervisors and assembled participants after a hearing in which I had successfully opposed two abusive Condominium conversion projects, we were stunned to see an angry mob attacking the east side entry of City Hall. Windows shattered, fiery projectiles thrown into the marble entry, I freaked momentarily. We were led to the elevators where we descended to the basement and out the south side doors. We weren't in any real danger, the building wasn't then surrounded. From there I walked up Van Ness Avenue with friends until I could catch a bus to my Apartment
building on Francisco Street.
I would soon learn that former supervisor Dan White had been given the most lenient sentence possible (voluntary manslaughter) for his premeditated murder of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk on November 26, 1978. The Gay community exploded in anger. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay supervisor, was their man. Dan White, a former fireman and then police officer, represented the reactionary police force which had been brutalising the gay community for years. The jury composed of Catholics, workers, heterosexuals, and whites took pity on this poor boy who apparently had been eating too much sugar (the "Twinkie Defense") and cracked
under pressure. The irony of the whole affair is that the jury represented the
San Francisco that was rapidly disappearing. Not, as they imagined, because Gays
were moving in, but because the Real Estate Lobby was busy destroying affordable
housing, the very housing the jury needed to stay in San Francisco and would be
lost, perhaps not for them directly, but certainly for their children and
grandchildren. And it was precisely this Lobby which had used Dan White to their
own ends. I believe crucial questions were not asked. Who financed Dan
White's political career? Where did he get the money to open his fast food booth
(Mr Potato, something like that) in pricey Pier 39? Who paid for his pricey
legal defense? (Was the Police/Fire Association solely funded by police and
firemen?) Most crucially, who was putting the squeeze on him to get his job
back? On November 10, 1978 he had resigned from the board of supervisors, saying
he couldn't live on the measly salary of $9,600 and his fast food stand wasn't
profitable enough. Then his "'allies" the Police Officers Association and the
Board of Realtors told him to get the seat back. There was a 6 to 5 split on the
Board and a real fear in the "growth coalition" that the Supervisors would vote
rent control or impose some real controls on property speculation and landlord
abuse. Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk opposed reinstating White. So he killed them. He planned to kill Carole Ruth Silver and Willie Brown for the same reason. For me THIS is the real issue. It's like trying to resign from the CIA or the Mafia, you can't. You know too much, and your "allies" or patrons are thugs. The real villains hid behind the Gay rights issue. And get this, Dianne Feinstein who belonged to the "growth elites", became Mayor on the death of Moscone, and was eventually elected mayor with the support of the gay community. And since 1992 she has been one of two Senators from California in the US Senate. (I am not suggesting that anyone told White to murder anyone, I'm just suggesting the origin of the pressure he was under which caused him to flip.) And suggesting as well that those represented by the jury which supported him have lost too, because they have been squeezed out of the San Francisco housing market.
It took time and alot of effort, but San Francisco now has one of the most restrictive "growth" controls on property, including rent control. And I'm now going to tell the story of my own small contribution to the struggle which highlights why these controls were so necessary.
On my return (September 1978) from a five week trip to France I was surprised to find
empty the apartment opposite my kitchen window. I had always taken comfort in
seeing the elderly woman in her armchair reading evenings in lamplight. She
reminded me of home, comfort, safety. The empty flat felt dead, desolate.
I assumed she had died, there was no other reason for an elderly woman to move.
Then I walked out heading east towards Van Ness Avenue and noticed that
the entire building seemed empty. I had previously rented a garage from the landlady, a meticulous Swiss woman and couldn’t imagine what had happened
during our 5 week absence. Shortly thereafter I found notices posted on
telephone poles announcing a hearing before the Planning Commission on a
Condominium Conversion of the Apartment building at 1200 Francisco Street. Ah,
so that was it. And a few hours later upon my return home, every single notice
had disappeared. Well, that was fishy. I had had the prescience of mind to note
the time and date and file number of the hearing. So I decided to unravel the
First I took down the names on the mailboxes hoping I could find the former tenants. Before I could finish a compact white car drove up and three figures got out, a middle aged couple and an old ugly woman. (Turns out the man and woman were siblings.) The woman in her late 40’s, a real virago, advanced menacingly, so rather than suffer an attack I very aggressively asked a question as though I were a city official, and then I headed west before she could gather her wits. My building was right next door but I decided it would be best if they didn’t know where I lived. I hurriedly walked down Francisco street, turned right onto Franklin street and crossed Lombard into Fort Mason, a military base which housed an officers club and some housing, but served mostly as a local park and was generally deserted. I turned around to see the
white car following me. I panicked. I knew of a pedestrian gate at the corner of Lombard/Van Ness and ran like hell through the gate, up Van Ness and right on Francisco Street to arrive home before they could catch me.
Now I can’t remember the chronology of what happened next. I know I went to the Voting Department in City Hall to find the addresses of the former tenants. I probably
didn’t have the right to do this. I pretended to be a city employee and just
walked right in and got the address of at least one former tenant who eventually
led me to the others. (She asked me how I had found her. I fudged an answer, but
she was eager to tell the story of their misfortune, she and the others were
justifiably angry, and still traumatized, even terrified.)
All the tenants had been given 30 days notice to move to make way for building
renovation. The new owners were Argentinian, the old lady at least of German
origin, the siblings were her children. This was the time of the Generals in Argentina when “Leftists” were “disappeared”, some pushed out of airplanes. I am convinced these 3 were working for some wealthy Argentinians, maybe the Generals themselves, to descend on San Francisco, buy up buildings, empty them of tenants and transform them into Condominiums at a tidy profit. There were few tenant protections, San Francisco lay like a wounded animal ripe for the hyenas. The old German might not have been a former Nazi but she acted like one.
So I wrote down the tenants’ stories. There were three retired women living together, one in a wheelchair. Finding an apartment for three with an elevator that they could afford hadn’t been easy. Two brothers in their eighties really regretted not having bought something when they retired, they never expected to find themselves subject to the rapidly rising rents and speculation of the late 1970’s. My “grandmother” reading in the lamplight in the window opposite had been put in a retirement home and the shock killed her. I can’t remember all the stories.
But one couple, a retired professional and his wife 20 years younger had an earful to tell. Arriving in the building in June 1978 they had been the only tenants with a lease. To force them to leave, the Argentine thugs terrorized them. They installed telephone in the apartment below and rang it all night long. Alone in the building, the couple felt physically vulnerable, so they moved. But that didn’t put an end to their troubles, because the thugs feared these tenants might testify against them. So they followed them to their new address and were seen creeping around the hallways. One day the couple returned home to find a cross engraved on their front door. They didn’t want to testify to anything, they lived in constant fear.
While I gathered these stories, I went to the Planning Commission to look up the application for the Condominium Conversion. I also did what I could to familiarize myself with the law. Normally the tenants had first right to buy their apartment, but there weren’t many, if any protections. And of course if the tenants had been summarily evicted they couldn’t activate whatever right they had.
One could evict tenants with 30 days notice for building renovation. I noted every renovation claim on the application and then contacted the former owner to ask if this work was needed. One detail I can remember is the question of copper plumbing. She was adamant in saying that it had already been installed. In fact, being of Swiss origin, she had seen to it that the building was very well maintained. In this our Argentinians were out of luck. I don’t remember if she wrote a letter confirming any of this.
Then came the hearing at City Hall. The Argentine family of 3 was there as well as a fourth woman I’ll call snake eyes. When I passed in front on them, I was kicked and snake eyes hissed. As a group they were an odd cross of Germanic thugishness and South American witchcraft. I actually feared being assaulted in the Lady’s Room so I told their lawyer that if they so much as touched me I would accuse them of assault and battery. He said he was sure it was an accident (being kicked), I said I was sure it was not. After he talked to them they restrained themselves.
Anyway, after their lawyer gave a nice tidy account of their application and building renovation I crucified them with details. I took every renovation claim they made and demonstrated that it was a lie. And then I described the former tenants, most retired and elderly, and how they had been traumatized by their evictions. Also the harassment suffered by the terrorized couple. And for some reason at the end of my prepared speech, I declared “And that’s all I have to say”. In the back a man cried out,
“Well, you’ve said quite enough” amid a rousing ovation, which surprised me.
Later the president of the Commission asked me with annoyance what was
my interest in doing this as though I was messing with their project. These
“Conversions” had been sailing through without much of a hitch. The question
surprised me. “Well, someone had to do it.” Was all I could say. They were my
neighbors, it’s like watching someone get beat up, you just stand by and do
Their application was denied. So they appealed to the Board of Supervisors. Now they knew where I lived and I felt threatened. The old witch would see me in my window and mouth curses into the air. I do believe one can send off negative energy, that I can feel it. Also, I was in performance and often returned home alone from the theater late at night.
I came prepared for the hearing on the evening of May 21, 1979. In the meantime someone had contacted me about another abusive Conversion, this by a well known German speculator. It’s amazing that San Francisco’s Real Estate Lobby welcomed foreign real estate profiteers to descend on their city to destroy so many lives. I
didn’t do much of the work on this application, but my presentation was
effective, the application was denied. And my Argentinians? Their own lawyer
refused to represent them, they had disgraced him before the Planning Commission
and his colleagues. Their application was denied. And while I couldn’t return
the tenants to their homes, I believe I more or less ruined this family in the
eyes of the local officials. I heard they left San Francisco. If they were
working for the Generals they might have had some explaining to do.
Just after the May 21, 1979 White Night hearing, I was walking west down the south side of Francisco street towards home. It was dusk, I saw a car opposite me at the
corner of Van Ness and Francisco. It occurred to me that if I crossed Van Ness
and the car turned right, it could run me over. So I crossed over to the north
side of Francisco street and waited. The headlights flashed on and the car
turned right. It was them, the Argentinians. I must have an animal instinct
About a month later Rebecca F. who worked for Catholic Social Services invited me to coffee. We met at the Bookplate on Chestnut Street. She urged me to continue my efforts in the struggle for affordable housing and renter protection. (These Conversions to Condos might not have been so offensive if the prices paralleled the rents, as they used to in France, but the apartments were priced so high that former tenants were effectively evicted from the market, hence the enormous profitability for the speculator.)
“You are a leader” she said. Yes, I felt flattered. But I knew I wouldn’t have the
physical strength to carry on. I look strong and healthy but in truth my vital
energies are limited, I have to ration them. I wanted to continue dancing and I
knew that I would have to open a Perfume Shop the following year. (My
husband insisted I do this, for not altogether noble reasons.) I always wonder
if I should have continued my “political”activities, but even as we spoke I was
tired and suffering terrible pelvic pains. I can stand up and hold my ground before a hostile audience without flinching, but afterwards I suffer physically. So I disappointed her.
In any case, even if I had said yes, within the year the MS struck me down. So I enjoyed what remained to me of my glory days. I like to think that my efforts had an effect on the collective memory in the struggle for tenant protection in San Francisco. Today owners have to pay moving expenses and some compensation to displaced tenants and the number of Conversions per year are limited by a lottery. Also consideration is given to age (over 60), handicap, and end of life conditions as well as longevity of residence (5 or 10 years). All of these factors would have protected my “clients” in 1979.
How does this story concern my Multiple Sclerosis history? After the hearings I
began to get calls from tenants threatened with eviction for Condomunium
Conversion. I became a “leader” or “expert” in spite of mryself. I did my best
to direct the callers to assistance. My first MS crisis began during the ballet
performances of the following spring. I had expected to recover once I
could rest after the season ended. But at the same time the owner of the
building opposite mine had launched another Condominium Conversion project and
as usual the tenants panicked. Even though this time the process was conducted
“legally”, that is of little consolation for the tenants. The owner has the
assistance of a lawyer, the tenants find themselves helpless before a legal
juggernaut. I began to organize them, and suggested they band together to hire
an attorney. But my health collapsed under the responsibility, I couldn’t follow
through and had to bow out.
And then I was evicted.
My landlord must have gotten wind of my activities and decided to oust me as a potential troublemaker. MS paralysis was setting in and I was laid low with a spinal tap headache. I thus experienced first hand the sense of catastrophe at losing my
home, my foundation. How could I possibly find a new home and move in 30 days
given my condition? That’s exactly what must have happened to the elderly
residents next door in the month of September 1978.
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